With one of the most compelling back stories in music — bandleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessing his father’s execution as a boy of four, military training under the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and countless outdoor gigs under the desert sky — the Tuareg band Tinariwen needs no help creating interest.
From its earliest cassette-only releases to recent television appearances on The Colbert Report, (see video below for a taste of that) and elsewhere, the group has shown a knack for gritty performances that fuse muezzin-style ululations with chiming electric guitars in a style that has come to be known as desert blues.
And although Tinariwen has inspired a host of other Tuareg musicians, including rising star singer-guitarist Bombino, no other Saharan ensemble has come close to matching the charged intensity this band emits.
Plenty of other musicians have wanted to get in on the action, however, including Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, all of whom appear on Tinariwen’s latest release, the wonderful Tassili.
Surprisingly, though, Ag Alhabib seems indifferent to the lure of such cross-cultural exchanges, as well as to the fulsome praise he’s received from such stars as Robert Plant, Thom Yorke and Bono — except insofar as they help him spread the word about the Tuareg people’s plight amid the contested sands of the Western Sahara.
“We are absolutely not looking for collaborations!” he says in a brief email exchange. “The meetings are coming naturally! [But] for sure to exchange our experience in our culture is benefit for the humanity.”
One of those natural meetings, says Ag Alhabib, was the collaboration with Adebimpe and Malone, who joined Tinariwen in Algeria’s Tassili n’Ajjer Park for the fire-lit outdoor sessions that produced Tassili. The collaboration came about thanks to the two Americans’ interest in social justice. As for working with Cline, that stemmed from Ag Alhabib’s “curious and happy” interest in the improvisational musician’s effects-heavy approach to the guitar — the polar opposite of Ag Alhabib’s own chiming, open-tuned style.
Ag Alhabib is slightly more forthcoming about Tinariwen’s Canadian connection: despite having recently been denied access to this country by Canadian immigration authorities, Ag Alhabib’s band has recorded and performed with Markham, Ontario-and-Manhattan-based ghazal singer Kiran Ahluwalia, (winner of the 2012 Juno for world music album of the year) cutting an incandescent version of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Mustt Mustt” as part of her 2011 release, Aam Zameen: Common Ground:
“The experience to meet Kiran open our eyes easiest for the Hindu culture,” says Ag Alhabib. “Successful from our point of view.”
That’s an assessment Ahluwalia is happy to second, although she points out that their initial point of intersection revolved around a Muslim spiritual, rather than something from her own Sikh upbringing.
“First of all, I thought it would be very interesting for both worlds — for the African world and for the Indian world — to have a classic song from the Pakistani Muslim tradition, and to have African Muslims singing it,” she explains, reached at her Brooklyn home. “It would be a completely different interpretation, but very much from a Muslim tradition.”
As well, there are certain musical elements common to Tuareg music and Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwali style. “Qawwali uses hand claps; so does the Tuareg music,” Ahluwalia notes. “Qawwali also uses call and response within the song, as do the Tuaregs. So these were the things that bound us together.”
Ahluwalia particularly treasures the memory of singing with Tinariwen in Timbuktu, Mali, on the closing night of the 2012 edition of the world-renowned Festival au Désert. Less satisfying is that just hours after the festival ended, hostilities broke out between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels, resulting in a bloody civil war that continues to this day.
There’s little doubt where Ag Alhabib, as a former rebel soldier, stands on the conflict, yet it’s equally clear that he hopes for a happy outcome. The 11-year-old Festival au Désert, he says, was “a real wish of peace” for the region — and if music can play a part in resolving the conflict, Tinariwen will be there.
Kiran Ahluwalia, Tinariwen and Bono visit desert festival
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Kiran Ahluwalia's website